9 Reasons Cover Crops are Smart

red clover as a cover crop

Farmers know their most important asset is their healthy soil. Without it, yields fall and profits shrink. But rather than leave it bare during the winter months, when nutrients and the soil itself can disappear during bad weather, a growing number of farms are turning to cover crops, like triticale, vetch, radishes, clovers or rye, to protect and enhance the soil.

Cover crops have been shown to drastically improve soil quality, especially when applied to silage corn and vegetable fields. Below are nine other reasons cover crops are worth the effort.

  1. Reduced erosion and run off. Cover crops reduce the impact of rain on the soil surface, reducing soil erosion and runoff and increasing infiltration. Decreased runoff also means less pesticides, nutrients and harmful pathogens infiltrating streams, rivers and water bodies and posing a threat to human health.
  2. Increased organic matter. Over time, a cover crop regimen will increase soil organic matter, leading to improvements in soil structure, stability and moisture and nutrient holding capacity.
  3. Improved soil quality. A cover crop will improve soil quality by improving the biological, chemical and physical soil properties.
  4. Stored nutrients. As a “trap crop,” a cover crop stores nutrients from manure, mineralized organic nitrogen or underutilized fertilizer until the next crop can utilize them, reducing nutrient runoff and leaching.
  5. Lowered production costs. Certain cover crops, such as clovers, field peas and beans, add nitrogen to the soil, reducing the need for nitrogen fertilizer, which could have environmental impacts, and lowering costs of production.
  6. Reduced soil compaction. Deep tap roots of some cover crops grown in the fall and spring penetrate compacted soil layers, improving drainage while conducting more moisture deeper in the profile.
  7. Improved field drying and access. In the spring, cover crops warm up and pull water from wet soils, allowing earlier access of equipment with less risk of soil compaction.  
  8. Suppressed diseases, pests and weeds. A cover crop provides a natural means of suppressing soil diseases and pests. It can also serve as a mulch or cover to prevent weed growth.
  9. Production of feed and habitat. A cover crop can provide high-quality material for grazing livestock or haying, and can provide habitat for beneficial insects and pollinators.

Knowledge makes the difference

Farmers should consider that cover crops do bring some slight drawbacks, including the costs of seed, time for planting, management and the possibility of planting delays. However, proper planning and management of a cover crop can help minimize or eliminate risks, and lead to a successful return on your investment.

In the fall of 2017, a partnership among USDA-NRCS, NH Association of Conservation Districts, Cooperative Extension and others is planning to launch "We've Got it Covered"  - an outreach campaign designed to encourage the use of cover crops by New Hampshire farmers.  For more information or to join the effort, contact Extension field food and agriculture field specialist Carl Majewski at carl.majewski@unh.edu.